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Jill E. Hopke and Luis E. Hestres

Divestment is a socially responsible investing tactic to remove assets from a sector or industry based on moral objections to its business practices. It has historical roots in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. The early-21st-century fossil fuel divestment movement began with climate activist and 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben’s Rolling Stone article, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” McKibben’s argument centers on three numbers. The first is 2°C, the international target for limiting global warming that was agreed upon at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change 2009 Copenhagen conference of parties (COP). The second is 565 Gigatons, the estimated upper limit of carbon dioxide that the world population can put into the atmosphere and reasonably expect to stay below 2°C. The third number is 2,795 Gigatons, which is the amount of proven fossil fuel reserves. That the amount of proven reserves is five times that which is allowable within the 2°C limit forms the basis for calls to divest. The aggregation of individual divestment campaigns constitutes a movement with shared goals. Divestment can also function as “tactic” to indirectly apply pressure to targets of a movement, such as in the case of the movement to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline in the United States. Since 2012, the fossil fuel divestment movement has been gaining traction, first in the United States and United Kingdom, with student-led organizing focused on pressuring universities to divest endowment assets on moral grounds. In partnership with 350.org, The Guardian launched its Keep it in the Ground campaign in March 2015 at the behest of outgoing editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger. Within its first year, the digital campaign garnered support from more than a quarter-million online petitioners and won a “campaign of the year” award in the Press Gazette’s British Journalism Awards. Since the launch of The Guardian’s campaign, “keep it in the ground” has become a dominant frame used by fossil fuel divestment activists. Divestment campaigns seek to stigmatize the fossil fuel industry. The rationale for divestment rests on the idea that fossil fuel companies are financially valued based on their resource reserves and will not be able to extract these reserves with a 2°C or lower climate target. Thus, their valuation will be reduced and the financial holdings become “stranded assets.” Critics of divestment have cited the costs and risks to institutional endowments that divestment would entail, arguing that to divest would go against their fiduciary responsibility. Critics have also argued that divesting from fossil fuel assets would have little or no impact on the industry. Some higher education institutions, including Princeton and Harvard, have objected to divestment as a politicization of their endowments. Divestment advocates have responded to this concern by pointing out that not divesting is not a politically neutral act—it is, in fact, choosing the side of fossil fuel corporations.


Luis E. Hestres and Jill E. Hopke

The past two decades have transformed how interest groups, social movement organizations, and individuals engage in collective action. Meanwhile, the climate change advocacy landscape, previously dominated by well-established environmental organizations, now accommodates new ones focused exclusively on this issue. What binds these closely related trends is the rapid diffusion of communication technologies like the internet and portable devices such as smartphones and tablets. Before the diffusion of digital and mobile technologies, collective action, whether channeled through interest groups or social movement organizations, consisted of amassing and expending resources—money, staff, time, etc.—on behalf of a cause via top-down organizations. These resource expenditures often took the form of elite persuasion: media outreach, policy and scientific expertise, legal action, and lobbying. But broad diffusion of digital technologies has enabled alternatives to this model to flourish. In some cases, digital communication technologies have simply made the collective action process faster and more cost-effective for organizations; in other cases, these same technologies now allow individuals to eschew traditional advocacy groups and instead rely on digital platforms to self-organize. New political organizations have also emerged whose scope and influence would not be possible without digital technologies. Journalism has also felt the impact of technological diffusion. Within networked environments, digital news platforms are reconfiguring traditional news production, giving rise to new paradigms of journalism. At the same time, climate change and related issues are increasingly becoming the backdrop to news stories on topics as varied as politics and international relations, science and the environment, economics and inequality, and popular culture. Digital communication technologies have significantly reduced the barriers for collective action—a trend that in many cases has meant a reduced role for traditional brick-and-mortar advocacy organizations and their preferred strategies. This trend is already changing the types of advocacy efforts that reach decision-makers, which may help determine the policies that they are willing to consider and adopt on a range of issues—including climate change. In short, widespread adoption of digital media has fueled broad changes in both collective action and climate change advocacy. Examples of advocacy organizations and campaigns that embody this trend include 350.org, the Climate Reality Project, and the Guardian’s “Keep It in the Ground” campaign. 350.org was co-founded in 2007 by environmentalist and author Bill McKibben and several of his former students from Middlebury College in Vermont. The Climate Reality project was founded under another name by former U.S. Vice President and Nobel Prize winner Al Gore. The Guardian’s “Keep It in the Ground” fossil fuel divestment campaign, which is a partnership with 350.org and its Go Fossil Free Campaign, was launched in March 2015 at the behest of outgoing editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger.